Films in Brief: Rendition

Rendition presents the subject of torture through an aching love story that encourages the viewer to suffer along with the wife of the disappeared, wondering when love will be restored and family made whole. We know, from the very beginning, that the Arab man in question is innocent because he is married to a white American soccer mom. His torture is overseen by a CIA analyst (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) portrayed as unqualified for the position either because of his intelligence, his sensitivity, or both. Increasingly disquieted by the futility of torturing an innocent man, the analyst ultimately makes a decision of conscience. These tools of plot development are the means of cinematic shorthand used to simplify the debate around this policy. Rendition is to be commended for depicting the United States policy of extraordinary rendition (which may be unknown to many viewers), whereby suspects deemed particularly threatening to national security are sent to other countries to be tortured to disclose useful information. However, in true Hollywood fashion, the movie covers the issue without meaningful discussion about the contextual verities and, while showing some ambiguities inherent in the characters, it provides a reassuring ending through the singular actions of a moral hero.

Upon reflection the viewer can unpack some lessons that are derived from the superficial assumptions of the movie. One lesson to be gleaned is that innocent victims of torture can expect to be saved through the compassion of a few individuals within the governing class, rather than through any substantive systemic channels. Additionally, the viewer is left to believe that morally dubious, but perhaps occasionally fruitful, counterterrorism techniques will ultimately be rectified because a strong individual with an Ivy League education and a conscience will be willing to stand in the gap against injustice and immorality… and notify the media. These are the solutions offered by the dominant formulaic storytelling of our time. We are able to act out our collective tribal worries through this story, psychically resolving our concerns about the state of our nation through the pat absolutions of pop culture. The viewer leaves feeling concerned, yes, but ultimately with a vague sense of triumph that right has won out.

This is the pabulum with which Rendition addresses one of the urgent contemporary issues that serves as a litmus test at the complex crossroads of counterterrorism, constitutional elasticity, and national morality. Perhaps a movie that looked candidly at the prospects of the American citizenry to assume active responsibility for the domestic crisis of misgovernment in a meaningful way might better address the underlying realities that lead to questionable policies such as extraordinary rendition.